The demand for small-format aerial photography continues to grow in large part due to the rapid adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Prior to the explosion of UAV use, this kind of photography was collected using older technologies such as tethered kites and blimps. Due to the increased demand for aerial imagery, this article looks at four platforms commonly used to collect small-format aerial imagery: multi-rotor UAVs, fixed-wing UAVs, kites, and blimps. Practical use considerations are explored, including characteristics of flight and operation, atmospheric and site factors, imaging sensors and costs, and regulatory limitations.

Each of the four categories of lifting platform have their strengths and limitations, and they often complement one another. UAVs tends to be more maneuverable and able to cover more ground, but they have limited flight times due to battery technology limitations. They also have clearly defined regulatory requirements for use, whereas the tethered platforms have very few legal restrictions on use. In some cases, a tethered platform may be the only legal option for gathering small-format aerial imagery at a location. There is no one perfect option that will fill all needs, but rather multiple solutions that are better suited to some situations than others. The ways in which some of these strengths and limitations may change in the future in regards to technology and regulations is also discussed.